How to Cope When Everything Goes Wrong on Your Vacation

How do you make a bad vacation good? These easy tips for fixing terrible trips will help you salvage even the worst holiday — even when your fellow travelers are stubborn as mules or sick as dogs.

My worst vacation experience was with my sister. We were in Calais, trying to find the entrance ramp to the highway so we could hitchhike to Paris. This was long, long before MapsMe and Google GPS. It was also long, long before I learned how to express myself without yelling, criticizing, or judging. My sister didn’t know much about fighting fairly, either. 

So there we were, my sister and I, wrestling on the side of the road on the outskirts of Calais. We were rolling in the dirt, pulling hair, screaming at each other like only sisters can do. A young Frenchman stopped and asked if he could help. We explained what the problem was (the sister is the problem! it’s the sister’s fault! the sister is wrong and stupid!). With the panache of an old Frenchman, the young Frenchman promptly tore a strip off of us. 

Tu es fou! You travel in France, the most beautiful country in le monde, and you fight like fille stupide,” he scolded. “Qu’est ce qui ne vas pas chez toi? Instead of le combat on vacation, you should be grateful to be in France. Honte à toi pout gâcher vos vacances!

So, like the loving sisters we were, we turned on the Frenchman. Who did he think he was, anyway? What right did he have to tell us how to have a good vacation? We sat there, covered in dirt and anger and indignation…and then it started to rain. And our trip went from bad to terrible.

15 Ways to Turn a Terrible Trip Around

The first five tips for fixing terrible trips are from own bad vacation experiences — which are thankfully few and far between because I rarely see anything as “bad” or “good.”  The last ten tips are from a list called “10 Incredibly Simple Ways to Be Happy on the Road” in 203 Travel Challenges: Travel the World. Explore Your Inner Self.

The takeaway: when you’re faced with an unexpected situation or problem, be willing to explore your options with a relaxed, curious mind. You may find yourself somewhere you never expected, but needed to be.

1. Ride the horse in the direction it’s going

Bad Vacation? Easy Tips for Fixing Terrible Trips
Bad Vacation? 15 Easy Tips for Fixing Terrible Trips

What is making your vacation bad? Or maybe it’s a who. Who is ruining your vacation? Pretend that situation — such as a missed flight — is a horse. Maybe you’re traveling with your sister and she’s making you crazy; picture your sister as a horse. Or maybe an ass. Instead of fighting the horse, beating the horse, yelling at the horse or even begging the horse, try getting on and riding the horse in the direction it wants to go.

I practiced riding the horse in the direction it was going in the Kathmandu airport in Nepal, when I couldn’t fly to Varanasi as planned. That’s when I wrote What to Do When They Refuse to Let You Board the Flight.  

When you ride the horse in the direction it’s going, you accept it for who or what it is. This acceptance, or even surrender, allows you to see your options more clearly. You can think and respond wisely when you stop fighting what is. If you resist a situation — or you get stuck in dismay, anger or grief — you can’t think swiftly or creatively. Acceptance is my favorite way to turn anything disappointing — from bad vacations to bad hair days to bad medical diagnoses — into something good.

2. Make a list of what you expect from your travels or fellow travelers

Let’s face it: when you take a vacation, you expect something. If you’re trekking in Nepal you expect to walk through villages and valleys. If you’re sand surfing in Dubai you expect to ride the smooth waves of golden dunes. If you’re going on safari in Kenya you expect to see giraffes and elephants — and maybe even a rhino or lion! If you’re celebrating your 50th birthday at a beach resort vacation you expect to relax and enjoy the thought of another 50 glorious years on God’s green earth.

What is your definition of a good vacation versus a terrible trip? If you know what you expect it’ll be easier for you to salvage a bad vacation. So, what do you expect from your vacation? Think about your expectations of your fellow travelers — whether you’re on your honeymoon or a medical missions trip to India. Make a list of all the things you think will make your vacation good, great, or even excellent.

3. Deal with your disappointment

Acknowledging (or admitting) your expectations brings you one step closer to turning a terrible trip around. After all, you can only turn something around if you know where you wanted to go. Sometimes all you need is simply be honest about your expectations. The truth sets you free in so many ways — and can even help you make a bad vacation good!

You can take it a step farther if being honest about your vacation expectations isn’t enough. If you’re trekking in Nepal, for example, learn how to cope with seeing starving, neglected dogs. If you’re sand surfing in Dubai, expect to take your passport if you want to buy wine or beer. If you’re serving on a missions trip, expect to overcome homesickness while volunteering in India.

4. Plan for detours

If you grip your plans tightly, you set yourself up for disappointment. Make plans, but hold them loosely. Have an idea of what you want to do and where you want to go, but be willing to take a detour. If you stick strictly to every detail, itinerary, plane reservation, hotel booking and tour plan you will inevitably be disappointed. And disappointment leads to the feeling that your good vacation turned bad. 

It’s much easier to hold your plans lightly and be willing to take a detour than to readjust your expectations when your travel plans don’t work out. One of the best ways to make a bad vacation good is to ride the horse in the direction it’s going.

5. Stop calling it a “terrible trip” or “bad vacation”

Your vacation will be what you call it. So will your fellow travelers, or the locals in the city you’re in, or the airline staff, or the restaurant servers. If you call your vacation a terrible trip in the Bahamas, then that’s what you have. If you blame your fellow travelers for ruining your vacation, then you have a ruined vacation. 

Noticing what you call your vacation, good or bad, is how you see it. And how you see it affects how you think, feel, and act. It’s a practice, almost a spiritual discipline, to look at unexpected situations — including missed flights, lost passports, and traveler’s diarrhea — as events that don’t ruin your trip. They just take you in a direction you didn’t plan on going. 

10 Ways to Be Happy on Your Vacation

These last ten tips are from a list called “10 Incredibly Simple Ways to Be Happy on the Road” in 203 Travel Challenges: Travel the World. Explore Your Inner Self. My original plan was to weave them into my own tips for fixing terrible trips, but they didn’t quite fit. 

I’m including them here because they inspired me to help travelers turn bad vacations into good ones.

203 Travel Challenges: Travel the World. Explore Your Inner Self
  1. Stop comparing yourself with others and where they go.
  2. Do only what you love. You usually have too little at a certain place to explore somebody else’s destinations.
  3. If something goes wrong – don’t be quick to get angry. Maybe something better came into its place.
  4. Big expectations are the greatest obstacle to appreciating what you have.
  5. Be here and now. Don’t think about yesterday and tomorrow.
  6. Instead of souvenirs, collect experiences, friends and beautiful memories.
  7. Accept that not everything was made for you to be comfortable. In fact, it’s made for the locals to be comfortable.
  8. What you think is wrong might be normal here. Everything “normal” has its geographical borders. 
  9. Don’t stick strictly to the plan – allow some detours.
  10. Accept acts of hospitality. Someone in the street invites you to have a coffee? Accept. That’s how the greatest stories (and friendships) are created. 

Tips five and seven — the bolded ones — are my favorite. I obviously loved number nine as well; it was the basis of my fourth tip for fixing terrible trips! And the last tip was exactly what I was thinking about when I wrote 7 Easy Ways to Make Friends When You’re Traveling Solo

Fellow traveler, your big and little thoughts are welcome below. If you have any tips or tools for travel that transforms you, please do share those. We love tips and tools :-) 

Travel in faith, and be transformed.

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6 thoughts on “How to Cope When Everything Goes Wrong on Your Vacation”

  1. My worst vacation was when I couldn’t deal with food poisoning for almost a week. I waited over six months for that vacation, but all I can remember now is that I wasn’t happy about any vacation. I was sick of the sea, of the sun, of food, literally everything. And I tried to stay optimistic and thought I’ll recover quickly. But I was bedridden for days. But there’s nothing I can do about it. I mean, I don’t have to regret that failure for the rest of my life, right?
    Thank you for the article! I hope that any of my negative experiences can be turned into a positive one.

  2. My worst trip was with my girlfriend. We went camping in three different states in a rented RV and fought the whole time. It was supposed to be a month of summer love and great memories but we had rain, bugs, extreme heat and lots of RV problems. We broke up but were stuck in the middle of the nevada desert so couldn’t even have space.
    That was 24 years ago. In two months my wife – who was that girlfriend – and I will be celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary. I don’t know how we did it but we somehow turned that “terrible trip” into one of our best vacation memories.
    If you’re on a bad vacation with someone you love, remember my story. It may become the best trip of your life.

  3. My expectations of hotels have ruined more trips than I care to remember! Honestly, I always thought it was about them. It took years and even counselling on an unrelated matter to show me how much I expected from people. Not just hotels or vacations but also my family, husband, and even my boss. Even God. I expected alot more from God. So I really appreciate your ideas for making a bad vacation good. It’s about the traveler not the place or hotel. Thank you!!

  4. Hello laurie
    My worst vacations were with my best friend. It was so bad that we don’t talk anymore. He treated me very badly every day we were in Córdoba, a state in Argentina.
    The best thing you can do is relax and ride a horse as you said. Thank you for sharing your post and your experience, keep it up! :)

  5. Hi Laurie,

    My worst travel experience was with my sister too! We had a huge fight in Belize about sunscreen. We both knew it wasn’t really about sunscreen and our fight was ruining our vacation but we couldn’t stop. Now we laugh about that stupid fight on the beach. It was a terrible trip at the time but turned out to be good because we laugh about it.

    I wish someone had taken a picture of us fighting on the beach, itd be a fantastic memory :-)

    Thank you for Travel in Faith! I get your Echoes newsletters. Last time you said you’re making a Facebook group for your new blog. Is it open to everyone?

    Cheers
    Michelle